1.8 BILLION (that’s B-i-l-l-i-o-n) PEOPLE are fasting along with me today. That’s more people than live in the US by far (325 million). Even China only has a mere 1.4 billion people. Though I’m not currently in communication with anyone else who is observing Ramadan this year, there is a sweetness in being connected to a critical mass on the planet who are also seeking to experience the face of God in their lives in a new way.
And here’s a new way I couldn’t have expected. Last night at the formal dinner I ended up eating a bowl of soup, small salad and roll. Not because I didn’t know how to explain my fast, but because “fast” has now become defined differently for me, due to my body’s wonderful insight.
Yesterday afternoon, after not sleeping much for a couple days due to the change in my routine, I needed to take a nap midday. But after an hour in our warm house under the down comforter, I woke feeling very woozy. Too woozy. I knew immediately it was eat and drink time or I was going to fall into the all-too-common trap of perfectionism.
Many of us Christians have been raised to think that Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48 , “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” means that you aren’t supposed to make mistakes. I was recently reading the Linns’ book, Understanding Difficult Scripture in a Healing Way, which pointed out theologian Walter Wink’s observation that there is no word for “perfect” in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. “Perfect,” as in “being flawless,” would have been a Greek concept that slipped into our interpretation of the Bible long after Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ world, perfection would have meant something closer to “wholeness.”
In fact, when you look at the context of the “Be therefore perfect” phrase, in Matthew 5:43-48, this is what is found:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The Linn book goes on to say that “the context makes it clear that Jesus is asking us to love as God does, forgiving even those who make mistakes (the ‘evil’ and ‘unrighteous’). The parallel passage in Luke 6:36 substitutes for ‘be perfect’ what Jesus more likely said, ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate’ (New Jerusalem Bible). Walter Wink writes,
Placed in its context within the rest of the paragraph, Jesus’ saying about behaving like God becomes abundantly clear. We are not to be perfect, but like God, all-encompassing, loving even those who have least claim or right to our love. Even toward enemies we are to be indiscriminate, all-inclusive, forgiving, understanding. We are to regard the enemy as beloved of God every bit as much as we. We are to be compassionate, as God is compassionate.
To return to my earlier question about the purpose of fasting, I remember that the very first Sura (similar to a chapter) in the Qur’an begins with addressing God (pronounced “Allah” in the language of Arabic) as the Merciful and Compassionate One. For me to try to push past an unhealthy point yesterday in the care of my body, in order to serve my ego’s need to “be perfect” or “not make any mistakes,” would have been missing the point of the fast altogether.
May Ramadan be a month for all 1.8 billion of us to become more compassionate with ourselves first, so that we can extend greater compassion toward our so-called “enemies.”
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